According to Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s official biographer, Islands in the Stream was part of the big “sea” book on which Hemingway was working in the last decades of his life. Part 4 of this larger work was actually broken off and published separately in 1952 as The Old Man and the Sea (and honored, indirectly, in Hemingway’s Nobel Prize of 1954). The remaining three parts were published as Islands in the Stream after Mary Hemingway and Charles Scribner, Jr., “made some cuts in the manuscript,” as Hemingway’s widow writes in a prefatory note, but “added nothing to it.”
Islands in the Stream adds little if anything to Hemingway’s international reputation, which had actually been established by 1930 with his first two novels (The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms) and the early brilliant stories (collected in In Our Time and Men Without Women, 1927). After 1930, Hemingway’s output was spotty and uneven, and he never regained the power and intensity of those early works. Still, Islands in the Stream is no great disappointment for lovers of Hemingway, and flashes of the novel carry the old Hemingway spirit and style.
The main problem with the prose of Islands in the Stream is that Hemingway editorializes too much. The lean, spare, objective Hemingway style appears less frequently (only in the “Bimini” section is the writing consistently strong); there are stretches of overblown exposition and description. The Hemingway “iceberg” theory (according to which the writer spells out as little as possible, allowing that which is unsaid, which lies beneath the surface of the story, to carry the weight of meaning) no longer operates.
Hemingway was best as an action writer of dramatic situations, but even these always bordered on the sentimental and the melodramatic. In Islands in the Stream, sadly, the sentimentality tends to take over, and the best passages are echoes of a younger writer who is no longer present.